The Cranky Critic Interview: Kenneth Branagh
Cranky Critic, June 9 2000
Even as I write these lines, three days before the release of
Kenneth Branagh's musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost
is released, I can see a chasm forming between people who absolutely
love it or absolutely hate Branagh. Our initial reservations
are detailed in the review. For this page, we present true stories
of media publicity mayhem. Most press roundtables have 6 or maybe
8 of us lower life forms at the table. For LLL, it was like a
dam had burst. 14 people in the room and each of us fighting
tooth and nail to get questions in. It wasn't a pretty site.
What we've done is, since we've talked Shakespeare with Branagh
before, we added that stuff into this mix, but if you want more
detailed explanations of why he did what he did, we recommend
the British LLL site (and you can get the whole thing here)
Since the previous evening Branagh
had presented one of the American Theater Wing's Tony Awards,
and since Love's Labour's Lost is an all singing all dancing
musical take on the Bard we thought the logical place to start
off was to ask if he'd take to the musical stage next...
Kenneth Branagh: There's nothing
specific planned. I enjoy watching them. I really enjoyed James
Joyce's The Dead, did you see it? It was really, really charming.
Very lovely music. The Irish influence and my background, the
whole set up of it of people at a wake, essentially, singing
parlor songs and bringing them to life was very; there's such
a lovely lightness of touch about it and I enjoy seeing the big
razzle dazzle stuff as well. I'd like to see Kiss Me, Kate and
CrankyCritic: When you started
working on LLL, did it ever go through your head (as it did ours,
and in the message boards on the site); did you start to think
"what the hell am I doing???"[g]
Kenneth Branagh: Well, it took
a long to convince myself it might work. At all points you thought
could this work because the play doesn't get done much and musicals
don't seem to work on film, etc. So you spend a lot of time trying
to ask and answer that question in whatever way. I've been in
the play and felt it played much more winningly than it reads.
It's very tough to read. It's very dense. But in the theater
it's an audience pleaser. They like it and found it silly and
charming and then they went with the change at the end which
makes it quite poignant. I like it that the evening can contain
both those things. Slapstick and silliness and then something
quite heartbreaking and thought provoking.
CrankyCritic: But a musical?
Kenneth Branagh: While I knew
that I liked musicals, I must say I tend to like the ones that
are superficially about frivolous subjects, that tend to make
their more serious points lightly -- rather than the more overtly
serious and earnest ones which, for me, tend to veer towards
opera or melodrama or whatever. I love entertainment that is
superficially one thing and surprises you with what else it does.
So given that I liked both those things you start turning the
worries into a positive. You think, well, if it hasn't been done
for a while maybe this is the time to do it again.
CrankyCritic: How far is too
far in taking liberties with Shakespeare?
Kenneth Branagh: I don't know
that there is too far, actually. I think there's only too bad.
If it's bad you've gone too far. The elasticity of Shakespeare
is extraordinary. It seems that people have got all worked up
this century about "oh! they've cut so much of the text!"
Go back to the 17th century, David Garrick, who was responsible
for the revival of Shakespeare's fortunes and was responsible
for the Silver Jubilee of Shakespeare in 1764, he was part of
a whole generation of theater practitioners who changed the endings.
I mean, Romeo and Juliet lived (!) in the David Garrick version
of it. King Lear is reunited with his daughter who's no longer
dead at the end of King Lear and those were the very productions
that reestablished Shakespeare after the whole hundred years
(when) his plays weren't done. The radicalism that they applied,
which kept it very lively and in the popular imagination and
in fact gave us Shakespeare were way more brutal with a playwright
who continues to be bouncing back from all of that. Stimulated
and revived; revivified is the phrase I think. If it's good art,
it's good. If you've done a brilliant version it becomes something
else. Shakespeare then becomes the source of fantastic inspiration.
I resist the idea that there's one way to do it. Otherwise why
see a Shakespeare play twice? why hear a Beethoven symphony twice.
Why look at a van Gogh painting twice. They're classics. Their
very quality is their ability to resonate from time to time through,
in the case of Shakespeare, the personification of the characters
through living actors that's why you want to go see Kenneth Kline's
Hamlet or Daniel Day Lewis' hamlet. You don't go "Oh I've
seen that. I know what happens. Doesn't he go mad or something?"
CrankyCritic: Where did the
musical connection come from, to go with American classics instead
of having new songs done (as in West Side Story)?
Kenneth Branagh: We did try to
write songs. The real problem is the lyrics. It's very hard to,
while retaining the original Shakespeare, to come up with original
lyrics that didn't look pretty silly next to them. It took a
braver man than me to try and do that. We did look at the less
well known songs of these composers and that didn't work. It
seems to me that these songs are classics in their own right.
It took quite a long time, eighteen months to two years before
sort of slowly wading through all the possible material, having
previously cut the play, to try and find moments where you thought
the characters might legitimately burst into song. Where you
could believe in someway that words were no longer enough, that
there was enough passion, frustration whatever to happen to encourage
something more to happen. It took a while. CrankyCritic: How
much were you inspired by Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love
You which has a similar construct of non-singing actors singing?
Kenneth Branagh: Well, I enjoyed it very much. I was encouraged
by the way in which, for the very last sequence of that movie,
the audience seemed to feel especially comfortable in the sort
of very romantic and heightened atmosphere. The very last scene,
as I recall, with Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen is on the banks
of the Seine. It's a glamorous city at night, moonlight, lush
orchestration. He's in a tuxedo, she's in a beautiful gown and
she flies. All of these things, as it were at the most extreme
terms of musical film, and the audience seemed to feel at ease
with that. Maybe [this] offered something that was different
and fun. It wasn't just nostalgic. It was romantic and that was
an encouraging thing to witness.
CrankyCritic: Did you talk
to Woody at all about this when you made Celebrity with him?
Kenneth Branagh: A little bit.
I mean, we don't have huge experience in song and dance. [All
of them] had done some; it wasn't as big a step as it might have
seemed. He told me that he encouraged no preparation at all in
terms of vocal stuff, whereas, despite the mixed abilities in
our group we did try very, very hard, having dancing and singing
coaching in advance of rehearsal. We did it very intentionally.
I told everyone "Look, character and form in singing and
dancing is the most important thing but I also want you to try
to do your very best. I'm going to buy what roughness or raw
edges come out as long as your character and your whole being
is absolutely behind it. I think that that will end up being
charming, but we can't parody it. We can't be sort of tipping
the wink and suggesting that we could be better; we're not just
sending it up or satirizing it. I don't want that. We must do
the very best we can and if we take a few hits, fine by me."
I think our primary responsibility is to the Shakespeare play.
I hasten to insist that there's a sort of strange balance. I'm
not apologizing for it but I'm suggesting that the kind of Mickey
and Judy "hey we can put the show on right here" quality
is kind of what we wanted.
CrankyCritic: Was there a
thought, though, that casting more people like Nathan Lane, who
already had the experience, could throw the "amateurs"
Kenneth Branagh: Here was what
I was worried about. My absolute instinct was I needed to feel
that people had the right approach to the Shakespeare for me.
I also wanted people who were totally committed to doing it.
I wanted so much of a character performer that I didn't want
too much technique when they suddenly started singing. I didn't
want the experience to suddenly go into the admiration of a beautiful
tone. I'll give you an example: when I sang the first part of
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" at the end of the
movie, with all this coaching and stuff I sang it musically more
correctly when we first did it. I was, from personal vanity point
of view, rather pleased with it. Then we sat down and listened
to it and it just seemed to me that it wasn't Berowne singing.
It was me having got very pleased with my voice -- still not
Pavarotti, I hasten to add -- but I'd become something else.
It's an infinitesimal thing. Sort of under the skin feeling that
somehow took me away from the character. So we recorded it again,
not with a deliberate attempt to roughen it up but just playing
more directly. I am Berowne singing good-bye to Rosaline, a woman
I love who I may never see again. What's in the picture is less
musically correct but it's unadjusted, so I'll waver a bit flat
there but it's got life and heart there and that's what I was
asking everyone else to do. Up to that point, of course, I wanted
to do both things. To be as technically correct as possible but
also have some life. It was Shakespeare first and then the rest.
CrankyCritic: Were you surprised
at some of the actors' abilities as singers?
Kenneth Branagh: oh no. [laughs]
talent means acting. Acting talent. I know you're being a bit
of a sausage to put it that way [we laugh] It did encourage me
that they went for it with such aplomb. We checked out that people
weren't tone deaf or had never moved in rhythm before and we
put them through their paces with choreographers and singing
coaches as soon as they were on board. There was something about
the whole atmosphere of the picture that needed to go this way,
from my point of view. It needed to have the sort of human dimension;
I did not want to turn it into some sort of superpowered slick
operation. It had to be about the Shakespeare and the ensemble.
There's certain things that it brings up. The kind of shared
fear which was quite useful from time to time. We were very bonded
by the exposing, vulnerable-making process of starting to learn
songs and dances, where you mess up and that kind of stuff.
CrankyCritic: People are always
surprised at the American actors that you pick for your Shakespearean
projects. How do you pick them? Do you watch a lot of movies?
Kenneth Branagh: I do. I watch
quite sort of a wide range of pictures. For me, when we come
to casting, it's quite important that the people really want
to be in the movie. Something like this gets announced and agents
will get in touch or actors will get in touch. I didn't want
to have anybody in the movie who was working as a way of doing
me a favor. They had to really, really want to be there 'cuz
there are too many chances to mess up. Too many chances to look
stupid. So the kind of attitude becomes incredibly important.
There's not much money. There's not much time and you have to
work very hard inside. With somebody like Matt or Alicia, both
of them really met us halfway as well and that goes a long way
with me. They both had gifts in the films I've seen that people
take for granted. I remember when I cast Keanu Reeves in Much
Ado About Nothing, eyebrows were raised about that, chiefly at
that stage, because the Bill and Ted movies were his major claim
to fame. I think people just kind of assumed that he walked out
of bed and walked into those movies. I think they're very funny,
that the comedy in them is very, very skillful. For me, that's
what I walk away with. A sense of the talent. I don't just naturally
assume "oh he's like that. He's that character." There's
some art there. There's some artifice there. I don't respond
to getting agented. Nor do I respond to the pressure of whatever
people might regard as the sort of pressures of commercial casting.
It doesn't work with something like this. Never works. You can't
fool the public in this way. So, Star X, his agent rings me up
and says "we want to be in it because Big Star X thinks
it would be good for his career at the moment." It's no
good if he doesn't want to be in it, if he just wants his or
her name on the poster and isn't going to be prepared to do the
work. They'll look silly. It won't be as good. People won't be
fooled. So there has to be genuine creative reasons behind it.
Otherwise, it's a bloody nightmare for me! There were a couple
of people who wanted to be in it. I finished having sessions
with them and I remember one saying "this is great. You'd
be so good for me. You'd be such a good teacher." You know.
[we laugh] Yeah it'd be great for you. Unfortunately I've got
bloody film to make. You should come for other reasons, to meet
me halfway. I'll do some solo sessions or something.
CrankyCritic: how would you
define Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese's relationship to the
Kenneth Branagh: I shall define
it thusly: [laughs] I spoke to Martin Scorsese, who I've known
over the last six or seven years. We've talked about doing things
together. He's a hero to me. A man of exciting knowledge about
film including musicals, despite having made only the one [New
York New York]. We talked a lot about practicalities and logistics.
Things like dance numbers. When you schedule them in a shooting
schedule? What time of the day? How many rehearsals before you
start shooting it? All of these things linked to gauging fatigue
or the possibility of injury or how that affects way to shoot.
The advantages and disadvantages of being very cutty or doing
it in uninterrupted takes. He was very helpful and right at the
end, when we were just about finished with the film, the Harve-meister
[Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein--cs], in his infinite wisdom,
decided we should show people with a view to getting final thoughts.
He invited Martin Scorsese and Stanley Donen, who were both extremely
helpful. Very supportive. Gave me a lot of their time afterwards.
That was very helpful. Captain Harvey thought, "if they
like it so much," which they clearly did, "perhaps
they'd care to endorse it." And he asked them and god knows
they didn't have to. I think they were very sensitive to the
fact that, in its small way, it was ambitious and a tough sell.
So we're very proud to have them connected with it.
CrankyCritic: One of our readers
asks a question about masks and doorways being prominent images
in LLL, as in nearly all your movies. [thanks Jude Tessel]. Is
that deliberate or a wrong impression.
Kenneth Branagh: Oh it's true
that they are there. I sometimes work it out. I'm pretty interested
in masks, I think, from a very mysterious and creepy experience
in Venice one time. I went to a mask shoppe. And inside was an
old Gepetto kind of character. This was years and years ago.
And these things seemed to be moving to me; seemed to be completely
alive. There were those sort of innocuous ones from the comedia
dell'arte and then there were creepier ones. We went to this
restaurant in a backstreet and it was carnival time [though the
city] seemed to be dead. And out of the mist, silently came this
huge mask, like a character from Don Giovanni on a gondola and
it scared the living s--t out of me because you couldn't hear
it and couldn't see it. A sort of incredible Pirates of the Caribbean/
Wes Craven moment. That whole Venetian mask thing has stuck with
me ever since. I went back to the mask shoppe and couldn't find
it, but have used them, for their unsettling effect ... and doorways,
I don't know, it may be a dull literal kind of view of things.
It's often nice to line up for the symmetry
CrankyCritic: oh the library
doors in Love's Labour's Lost are huge
Kenneth Branagh: they are
CrankyCritic: and they make
beautiful set pieces
Kenneth Branagh: There were a
number of touches that I sometimes think "is anybody going
to really see this? and do they really care?" Each time
we go to the boys when they have their top hat and tails on we
tilt down. At the top of each of the doors there is a sign saying
"School For" whatever it is. School of Natural Philosophy.
School of Metaphysics. And you get a sort of beat of that and
you go down to Fred Astaire-man. That kind of thing amused me.
I like doing the kind of contradiction between all those things.
So I hope that answered the question.
CrankyCritic: Any thought
of doing a film, somewhere down the road, about your Belfast
Kenneth Branagh: Stephen Rea
once said to me that I should do that very thing. Something about
that late 1960s time. So I'm thinking about it.
And this is where they start
dragging KB out of the room
CrankyCritic: and your favorite
Kenneth Branagh: Chitty Chitty
and next time we'll try to ask
him if he was serious.
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